Tanaiste finally acts over leaks from her own staff
TANAISTE Joan Burton is finally tightening controls in her department in the wake of damning revelations surrounding the handing out of confidential data to private investigators.
The Social Protection Minister has tasked two of her most senior officials with putting a stop to the leaking of sensitive information about members of the public.
An alert has been sent to thousands of department staff warning them of "bogus calls" and providing information about the shady methods used by so-called tracing agents to illegally obtain data.
The department last night confirmed that a "high-level working group" will now look into all aspects of data protection following strong criticism of its internal controls.
The decision was taken after the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner told the department that private investigators working on behalf of credit unions had illegally obtained information from department officials through a single phone call.
A spokesperson added that Ms Burton is now "satisfied" that her officials acted "appropriately by immediately launching an internal investigation into the case and assisting with the Office of the Data Protection Commission investigation."
"There is an ongoing programme of data protection presentations to staff around the country," the spokesperson added.
The decision to finally clamp down on the unlawful release of data comes after the Irish Independent revealed the ease with which private investigators had duped staff in one of the country's leading state agencies.
The breach of information belonging to at least 78 credit union members is at the centre of a major probe by Assistant Data Protection Commissioner Tony Delaney.
An investigation by this newspaper detailed how private investigators used illegal tactics, including false identities, to obtain the information from the department over a number of years.
Mr Delaney is prosecuting a number of private investigators involved. At least 12 credit unions who hired the companies face being required to destroy any so-called "stolen data" in their possession, the Irish Independent understands.
But despite the apparent action by Ms Burton, one of Europe's leading IT experts has strongly criticised the Department of Social Protection over its "complete lack of procedures" surrounding the handing out of personal data.
Information security consultant Brian Honan also said that 12 of the country's credit unions must take responsibility for the illegal activities of a series of private investigators.
Mr Honan, who has provided services to the European Commission and a number of state bodies, said Irish Independent revelations surrounding data protection raise "serious concern".
"There is clearly serious concern over how these department officials verify who is on the phone seeking personal information. Under Data Protection rules, companies and departments must have some way of ensuring they are giving information out to the right people," he said.
Mr Honan also said that credit unions at the centre of the scandal must take responsibility.
"Under data protection rules, credit unions must gather information in a fair and legal manner. Just because you hired a third party to do a job, doesn't absolve you from responsibility."